Electronic Signage (LED) Issue

Dear Management Doctor:

I head a planning office for a rural jurisdiction adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Queen Anne's County. Here's my dilemma. I have received a request to allow electronic moving signs using LED technology for business and civic organizations to present messages. These may change and have attractive backgrounds and can be managed from a computer off site from the actual signage. The business community that is proposing the code change noted that there are studies that indicate that this highly visible signage can increase their business revenues by 35% which given the economy would be a considerable benefit. What we need guidance on are the following:

  1. Any third party (not funded by the sign industry) studies related to safety, aesthetics, and increased business revenues from electronic signage.
  2. How to control content on sign including but not limited to brightness, contrast, and colors through specific code language.
  3. Information on jurisdictions that reviewed electronic sign requests and did not approved such a request.
  4. Samples of very detailed electronic sign code (law) or ordinances.
Any help you may give us in this quest would be greatly appreciated.

Helen M. Spinelli
Queen Anne's County

Dear MovingChallenged,

I am currently focusing on organization and management issues and am out of touch with current thinking about moving signs. However, I will put this out to our readers and see if they can help you. I will share a few of my thoughts:

  1. I think the planning profession is a bit too up-tight regarding moving signs.
  2. When I was still doing planning, I did a specific plan for a very large group of auto dealers, some 20 or more dealers. The site was relatively isolated from residential uses and was producing the highest amount of sales tax for the entire city. The tax was much larger than the regional shopping center. The City was up tight about the normal balloons and banners and yes, moving signs. Instead of controlling them, I suggested they let everything hangout and make buying a car a fun adventure. They could have more balloons, banners, flags and signs than ever. Sort of a Los Vegas approach. As you can imagine, my idea was dead on arrival.
  3. I am currently involved with some repairs to my Koi pond. The Koi pond store is on a commercial street. It has a bit of landscaping out front and a front porch like an old western town. They have small wind spinners displayed on the porch. The new City Manager is shutting down the spinners, no moving signs allowed in the City. Why can't we all relax a bit and have some fun? The owner is circulating a petition on this. It will be interesting to see the results.
A different perspective,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I do agree with the good doctor about communities being too uptight about signage, but each community needs to set their limits (if they have any). In Oroville, we allow electronic signs but if they display text messages that stream across the display area in such a fashion that drivers are distracted attempting to read the entire message - it is a no go. Also, beacons, strobe lights or flashing signs that have extreme glare, extreme brightness etc., or if they flash on other properties, are prohibited. We give a bit of latitude for temporary signage which would include balloons, etc. We do have a challenge since we are part of a Scenic Byway and the state highway runs through our downtown. Some screaming went on when the first billboard went up so we developed and adopted a sign ordinance; our largest sign allowance is 64 s.f. (each side) in our service commercial district; 32 s.f. downtown.

Chris Branch 
City of Oroville, WA

The City of San Jose recently adopted new provisions for electronic/LED signs in the downtown area and for large shopping centers along freeways. They are now working on additional provisions to allow electronic signs for assembly uses and for a commercial street with a collection of auto dealers through a pilot program. The recently adopted ordinance includes regulations governing the operation of electronic signs intended to minimize driver distraction and promote land use compatibility. (See this ordinance at Click here or the complete Sign Code at Click here. Additional information is available on the City's website at sanjoseca.gov.

In developing the operational regulations, staff consulted reviews of the available literature on the topic of electronic signs and driver distraction, including:

  1. A report commissioned and administered by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO): "Safety Impacts of Emerging Digital Display Technology for Outdoor Advertising Signs", which can be viewed here and
  2. A study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009: "The Possible Effect of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) on Driving Safety - Phase I, which may be viewed here.
The AASHTO report provides guidelines for regulating electronic/digital signs intended to minimize potential adverse traffic safety impacts. Staff also reviewed the regulations of a number of other cities and state highway departments.

Carol Hamilton 
City of San Jose

There is a webinar sponsored by APA on Oct 13 regarding digital signage. Evidently there has been a study done regarding safety (not economic viability).Click here for more info.

Catherine M. Hartley, AICP, CNU-a 
City of St. Pete Beach

Moving signs? How about living signs. You can imagine the controversy generated in Marin by the new Caltrans "flower billboards." Click here to see.

Elise Semonian
Town of Ross

We spent 8 months reviewing sign issues and adopted a revised Ordinance in 2009 that fits our small city - rural and heritage based.

LED signs are allowed but must meet certain criteria. I believe it depends on the nature and character of the city or town, and that potential increased revenue is only gained while an LED sign is 'new and different' - once you have 7 or 8 along one area, we've found by looking at other cities in the area that they become a visual distraction and safety hazard.

We're very proud of our Sign Ordinance, click here to see the section which contains all the supplemental info, including signage.

LED criteria starts on page 84, sign regulations are on pages 14-92.

We also have added extensively to our definitions pertaining to signage, which is under Article 2. Click here for the general page with the entire LDR where Article 2 can be found.

In any case, I hope this will help someone out there - we're definitely on the conservative end of the spectrum and thus we will leave Las Vegas in all its glory or mayhem, on your side of the nation.

Have a great day, 
George Curtis
City of Live Oak

In response to the LED and 'moving sign' issues discussed, I have some comments.

Signs are not inherently evil. They sure can be, though. Like cell phone towers; everyone wants the service, but many dislike how they look-especially when there are a lot of them. Dynamic signs draw the attention of the human eye; and brain. This is good from the advertising perspective. It is bad when the human eyes and brains are in vehicles traveling at high speeds and the brain is supposed to be operating the vehicle safely. It is naive to ignore the danger of driver distraction, one of the main causes of crashes. There are not studies that conclusively link more highway signs to more crashes. However, the whole purpose of dynamic signs along highways is to distract drivers. I don't think that's a situation where people should "relax a bit and have some fun." Ever been in a car crash caused by someone screwing around with a phone or music player? I suggest you talk to someone who has: it's not fun at all.

The other issue is aesthetics. Each community differs. If your community wants to maintain a less busy, more rural look, think about that. The image of dynamic signs on a shoreline trying to draw boaters on Chesapeake Bay gives one pause. I hope.

If your community is ok with flashing, moving, floating signs, go for it-but think carefully about high speed roads. I am skeptical about a study that concludes signage will increase revenues by x%, but clearly signage is important to commerce and is part of our jobs to promote economic development. Be aware there will be aesthetic changes to your community if signage takes over the viewshed of, say, your historic downtown or your gateway. There are people who don't mind this, and people who do.

This suburban community, with several highway corridors and no historic commercial core, decided that dynamic signs are acceptable up to twenty square feet. This allows for the common bank reader board size and similar signs. We do not allow inflatable gorillas and the like. We do not allow new billboards (off-premise signs). These decisions resulted from a long series of discussions and debates in public meetings, and the final vote was not unanimous. And things may change again.

Get the issues out there, look at the different corridors and commercial areas, and let the debates begin. You'll need to act as referee to ensure different perspectives are presented fairly and accurately.

Jeff Smyser
City of Lino Lakes, MN

I hope I am not sticking my nose in your business, but we regulated moving LED type signs early on and limited their size to 8 square feet (very small, but gave some ground by even allowing them). The "dwell time" that a message (picture, etc) must display is 60 seconds, be monochromatic (no multi-color) and no brighter that 300 watts or equivalent. Pretty restrictive, but we are a small town that wants to preserve its character and not become "Vegas-like" as some would have it become. Also, the message cannot have alternating, moving, scrolling, crawling, flashing, dissolving, or rotating copy, animation, or full color video.

However, if the sign will display the time and temp, the message may be alternated with one commercial message every fifteen seconds, the idea being that if the sign will spend some of its dwell time on a public service-type message, we will allow some flexibility.

I don't think you can regulate the message content more than that, and even what we are controlling (animation and video) may be treading on constitutional rights. Time will tell.

As for those that say loosen up, the question becomes: "how much?" First it's balloons, then banners, LEDs then what? It can quickly get out of hand and when you allow one business to do it, you have to let others. There is no constraint on the part of many businesses. The mantra is bigger and more is better. But for whom is it better? Certainly not the community as a whole as the visual clutter and tackiness exponentially proliferates. This can actually work against the business community as the appearance of all those attention-getters clog the visual realm, one or more signs competing for the customer's attention. Besides, many do not want to be bombarded by commercials distracting them while driving in an urban setting. Driving is dangerous enough!

Thank you for allowing me to comment.

Gregory L. Scoville, AICP
DeFuniak Springs, FL

Instead of the "up-tight" Planner viewpoint, I'll give the Engineer viewpoint and leave it to you to decide if it is also "up-tight."

One of the concerns with moving signs, flashing signs, and changing message signs is driver distraction. While from the business owner's viewpoint, driver distraction may be viewed as a plus; from the traffic engineering standpoint it is viewed as a minus. However, rather than prohibiting these types of signs outright, ordinances often limit the frequency at which the message changes in order to limit the potential for driver distraction.

For billboards, FHWA is undertaking some research on changing message signs. A description / status update for this research can be found here.

Older FHWA documents related to billboards, including changing message signs can be found here.

An example of a sign ordinance that limits the frequency at which the message changes from the City of Spokane, WA ordinances is available here.

I am sure that there are many ordinances that take this approach. I selected this particular example because it was easy to locate through a web search. I would suggest gathering examples from a number of agencies and discussing the issues that went in to shaping the ordinance with the planners in those agencies.

Benjamin J. Jordan, P.E. 
University of Wisconsin - Madison
College of Engineering

Eric Kelly would be a great person for them to contact regard the LED sign issue: planatty@comcast.net or eric@duncanassociates.com.

Connie B. Cooper

I think you pretty much have to apply the "community standard" to signs. The vast majority of residents in our City support strong sign regulation standards as an aesthetic control. Therefore, we do not allow digital billboards or any kind of new billboard, period. However, we do allow electronic reader boards to be incorporated into a merchant's freestanding sign and it is counted toward their overall sign allowance at time of permitting. We allow them only so long as the message does not move, rotate, or flash. It must be static during display and change no more frequently than once every 30 seconds. Enforcement is not always easy with a standard like this, but it does seem to have stricken a happy medium in the community.

Forrest E. Cotten, AICP 
City of Auburn, Alabama

Thanks, after reveiwing this information, we may want to massage our Sign Ordinance mark-up a bit. I'll make a list of pertinent issues for a "quick" discussion so that we can keep moving forward.

Stephanie Diaz
Oxmard, CA